Hypokalemia, also called low potassium, refers to
the lower than normal level of potassium in the blood. Normally, the blood potassium level in the body is 3.6 to 5.2 millimoles per liter (mmol/ L) and anything below 3.6 mmol/ L is considered hypokalemia. When the blood potassium level is less than 2.5 mmol/ L, this is considered very low and may be life-threatening. The kidney controls the potassium levels in the body by removing excess potassium into the urine.
Potassium is one of the essential electrolytes (mineral) of the body. It is required for proper functioning of the nerve and muscle cells, particularly heart muscle cells. Specifically, potassium in the body is needed by the muscles for contraction and essential to the heart for proper beating and regulating blood pressure. An estimated 98% of potassium in the body is located inside the cells. Even minute changes of potassium present outside these cells may have critical results on the nerves, muscles and heart. Due to impaired cellular processes, hypokalemia may result to weakness of the body,
Causes of Hypokalemia
Potassium is obtained from food. Therefore, lack of potassium in the diet is relatively uncommon. The more common causes of hypokalemia include:
- Diuretic medications or water pills, leading to excessive urination
- Diarrhea, or abuse of laxatives
- Kidney disorders affecting potassium retention in the body (Cushing syndrome, hyperaldosteronism, etc.)
- Antibiotics (penicillin, amphotericin B, etc.)
- Eating disorders (anorexia nervosa and bulimia)
- Ingesting large amounts of products containing glycyrrhetinic acid
Symptoms of Hypokalemia
Symptoms of hypokalemia are usually mild when there is only a small drop in potassium levels. In contrast, a huge drop in potassium levels may be fatal. Hence, symptoms will differ depending on mild to severe levels. The following are symptoms of hypokalemia in the body:
- Abdominal cramping
- Arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythms)
- Excessive thirst
- Fainting due to low blood pressure
- Frequent urination
- Muscle damage or weakness or spams
- Nausea or vomiting
Treatment for Hypokalemia
The most effective treatment for hypokalemia is to increase potassium levels in the body and avoid activities that may lead to further decrease of potassium levels. It is necessary to address the cause of hypokalemia to treat it.
- Eat food rich in potassium, such as bananas, tomatoes, turkey, beef, strawberries and oranges. But these foods should be taken in moderation.
- Avoid diuretics or anything that contains caffeine or alcohol. Also, avoid laxatives.
- If due to high aldosterone in the body, medications can be taken.
- Take potassium supplements but with medical prescription.
Due to its effects on the human body, especially in relation to common conditions that can be treated with basic first aid, understanding hypokalemia may help when taking first aid courses.